Weekly Briefing

Courageous tax talk from Perdue

The Governor opts for common sense over political correctness

There have been plenty of times through the years in which progressives have had reason to question or find fault with Bev Perdue. Typically, this unease has been the result of the her penchant – either as a state legislator, Lt. Governor, or chief executive – for cozying up to good ol’ boy and girl business interests and keeping progressive causes at arm’s length. An open letter that appeared in this space at the start of her current term went on at some length on the subject.

Right now, however, is not one of those times.

As the Governor fast approaches the make or break months that will determine the future (and the length) of her governorship, Perdue has made a critical choice about who she is, what she stands for and how she will be remembered.

The choice, of course, was the one announced Tuesday about state tax policy. Here’s how she put it:

“Education has always been part of the fabric of who we are as a people in North Carolina and it’s the key to our future. We must stop the deep and unnecessary cuts that are going on in North Carolina’s schools. That’s why I’m for temporarily restoring three-quarters of the one-cent sales tax that the Republican-controlled General Assembly eliminated and for dedicating those funds to North Carolina schools.

I have cut spending to eliminate waste and make government more efficient. But we cannot allow the legislature’s extreme education cuts to continue. As the North Carolina Association of School Administrators pointed out, North Carolina has fallen to 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding. The legislature’s budget has hurt education at all levels – from pre-k all the way through higher education – and has led to higher class sizes and the loss of thousands of teacher and teaching assistant positions. And their budget forces even more teacher layoffs next year — we must act to prevent these additional cuts.

Our children’s future is so important that today, I want to let you know that when I present my budget this spring, I will once again call on the Republican-controlled General Assembly to temporarily restore three-quarters of the one-cent sales tax as a vital step to funding our schools. Also, in the days ahead I will be speaking with you about other budgetary matters that affect North Carolina families.

Education is the key to our children’s future and to North Carolina’s economic future. Investing in education is central to our ability to attract new jobs and businesses to our state. We owe it to our children and our state to stop these cuts and make education a priority again – a fraction of a penny for progress.”

A courageous stand

Perdue’s statement was obviously not an easy one to make. Having lost a fight over the issue of taxes with the General Assembly last summer, it would have been easy for the Governor to simply drop the subject and move on — especially during an election year in which such a statement was sure to provoke every imaginable form of name-calling demagoguery and hyper-partisan punditry from her opponents.

Seriously, how many politicians in modern America have made an across-the-board bump in taxes – even one as modest of the Governor contemplates – a defining plank in his or her re-election campaign? The number has to me microscopic.

In other words, no savvy, experienced and moderate-to-conservative politician – a bill that Perdue clearly fills – is going to take such a stand casually. The only reason to do it is if things have simply gotten so bad in the public systems and structures over which one presides that no other choice exists.

That clearly is what has happened in this case. Nothing would have made a career elected official like Bev Perdue happier than if she had been able to stand up and announce that state revenues had fully rebounded on their own as a result of the slowly recovering national economy and that, therefore, no new revenues would be necessary in order for the state to meet its basic responsibilities in 2012-13.

Unfortunately, that little fantasy simply hasn’t come to fruition. The hard truth is that due to the lackluster federal stimulus efforts (which have been made markedly worse by conservative obstructionism) North Carolina’s economic progress is likely to be painfully gradual for the next few years.

Put simply, she faced a stark choice, give up and go along with the reactionary (but politically expedient) plans of the privatizers on Right-wing Avenue, thereby blessing the state’s plunge to 49th in education spending or, get up, take a stand and say “hell no!”

It is to the Governor’s great and everlasting credit that, when confronted with this dilemma, she chose the latter option.

Not a perfect proposal

Though the Governor deserves great credit for her principled stand, neither her tactics nor the specifics of her proposal are perfect. As Chris Fitzsimon noted yesterday, there are things she could have done better. Relying on the sales tax alone is a longstanding mistake that Democrats have repeatedly made. The tax contributes to the state’s generally regressive tax system and is increasingly narrow and obsolete in our modern economy.

The Governor’s sales pitch was also imperfect. As Chris noted:

“You might expect Perdue to come forward with her plan to raise revenue for education after a highly visible, intentional and carefully planned campaign to draw more public attention to the damage the cuts have done to classrooms across the state.

Tuesday’s announcement did come after her appearance at a public school, but she could have spent several more days building up to it by highlighting the problems in great detail, featuring students, teachers, and families who are affected and reminding people that the Republican budget dropped North Carolina to 49th in the country in education funding.”

Still, for all of these flaws, you have to hand it to Perdue for standing up and being counted.

At a time in the world in which ultra-right corporate money has tilted the political landscape so far right that Ronald Reagan’s policies would be widely considered (and portrayed in the media) as “socialist,” any high official who willingly and proudly stands up the conservative political correctness police deserves to be roundly and heartily congratulated.

Thank you, Governor Perdue.